From the Bench

  • Collaboration, Competition and Confidence

    Collaboration, Competition and Confidence

    I took my first metals class in 1998

    How are these things made? I have always worn silver jewelry, and often wondered just how it was put together. My curiosity finally got the better of me, and I headed off to a local community program to learn about making silver jewelry. I thought I’d make a ring or a bracelet and call it a success if I didn’t melt it all or make something that would forever sit in the back of my jewelry box. Little did I know… I was hooked from the very start.

    The instructor teaching our class was a retired gentleman, and he brought old-school tools to class. I remember repurposed hammers, an old fashioned hand drill and a polishing machine cobbled together from an old washing machine motor. I decided to take more classes at a local jewelry supply store, and got a chance to use more modern tools.

    The basics were still the same, just better quality and more specific to each step in the creation process. I began to understand which hammer was appropriate for shaping, or texturing, learned how to use a file correctly, practiced loading and reloading saw blades into a frame, made my own sanding sticks with different grits of sandpaper (I still don’t like making these!) and learned about the chemicals used to treat the silver. What I began to discover, was that each instructor had different ways of making the same basic pieces. Over time, I learned which techniques worked best for me. Open studio times with experienced instructors allowed me the opportunity to talk about design ideas, how to troubleshoot an issue with a piece and to try out new equipment that I didn’t have at home in my tiny studio.

    When I ventured out into the maker community, I had no idea what was in store for me. I knew a few people that sold at trade shows and artisan markets, and asked for some advice. I knew I would need a website and social media, and then there was this site called Etsy that I had no idea about but would try anyway. At my very first market, I didn’t sell a darn thing and the wheels literally fell off at the end. As I was hauling my totes out of the market, the wheels fell off my cart, leaving a trail of hardware behind. Someone grabbed my totes for me and took them to my van, and someone else helped me find all the missing parts. I thanked them profusely, chatted with the market manager and went home. That’s when I knew what the market and maker community was made of. Everyone was so helpful and supportive. They were friendly and obviously loved what they did. I knew the first one would be a learning experience, and how!

    That first year was HARD. I had no idea what I was doing. I wasn’t sure of my work. I didn’t know about marketing or pricing or even the right markets to sell at. A $200 day was thrilling to me because it meant someone liked my work enough to buy something! I didn’t know anyone, and it was tough for this introvert to watch the makers greet each other with hugs and laughter. I felt like an outsider.

    That’s when I started to figure out what an ally a booth neighbour could be. Most of us work alone, but when you need to go to the bathroom or get a desperately needed cup of coffee, you have to learn to know your people. Slowly, those strangers greeting each other started greeting me at markets. We traded stories, talked about our kids, how we got into our craft, what our day jobs were. We bought from each other and referred customers to each other. Most of these interactions were great.

    At one of my first all handmade markets, I was set up almost but not quite across from another maker that worked in copper. My booth was a mix of silver and copper pieces (and still is today) but our work was very different. The maker came over to chat, and they wondered why on earth the organizer would put the two of us across from each other. I had two choices to make: I could worry about the other maker potentially affecting my sales and ask to be moved to a different spot, or stay put and talk to people about my work and go on with my day. I think you can guess what I chose. I pride myself on being a maker that is easy to work with. I pay my booth fees on time, I am usually the first in and last out (jewelry takes a while to set up and take down) I never, ever tear down early, and I always touch base with the market manager to let them know about my day and to thank them for all the work they do. In the end, my sales were just fine that day, and I chat with that same maker at many events.

    Making a market map is a thankless task. There are so many variables to consider! Spreading makers out so that similar items are not close to each other, trying not to create bottlenecks in traffic, accommodating requests for power, wall space, corner space, can I be next to my bestie space and more - it’s a tough job! As a jeweller, I know that each market will be at least 25-30% jewelry. In a hall that holds 100 vendors, finding 30 spots for jewelry that are not too close to other jewellers is tough.

    I’ve been at markets where every other table in our row is a silver or coppersmith. I’ve been across from and behind other jewellers. I’ve found that those markets mean better sales for me, rather than worse. Customers get excited about shiny pretty things, and when they can’t decide between makers, they tend to buy more. I love it when someone buys a pair of earrings from me, and then comes back to show me a necklace they bought from another maker to go with them.

    We all have access to the same tools and materials. That part is equal. It’s what we do with those tools and materials, alongside our imagination and training that bring the metals to life.

    A local coppersmith makes the most lovely etched pendants. They draw all of the designs on the copper and then hand cuts each pendant. I have etching supplies but can’t draw like that, so my copper pendants will never look like theirs.

    Another silversmith creates highly polished pieces with silver tube and gemstones, another combines enamel and patina and layers into fantastic statement pieces, yet another melts down old coins to roll into sheet to create multi gemstone rings that are both bold and delicate at the same time.

    These makers all have their own style that is very different from mine. Confident in our work, we admire and buy each other’s pieces, take classes from each other, talk shop about tools and materials together, and we all refer customers back and forth.

    This sense of community, the collaboration and camaraderie and lack of competition is pretty special. Talking to my other maker friends, they feel the same. Textile and fibre artists talk shop about wool and dying and needles and hooks the same way we talk about our favourite hammers and files. Bakers and chocolatiers swap wholesale sources and potters talk about throwing clay and glazes (but not too much because glaze recipes are closely guarded!) If you need bags, change, spare batteries or your point of sale device isn’t working, everyone will jump to rescue you.

    When I started out, I had no idea just how amazing and supportive this community would be. I have made some wonderful friends, collaborated on projects, found business mentors and more. When you find your people, it’s pretty awesome.

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